Saturday, January 30, 2021

Neziah Wright: 
Stamped In History

Anyone who has ever been a stamp collector will instantly recognize the pair shown here: They are the very first two United States postage stamps, and were issued in 1847.

Along the bottom edge of each stamp are the initials R.W.H.&N. The W stands for a man whose mortal remains are spending eternity in Ridgefield, but who probably never lived here — though he had a close attachment to the town.

Neziah Wright was born in 1804 in Grafton, N.H., where his father was a local physician. The family soon moved to Bradford, Vt. 

Little is known about his early life but by the 1820s he was in New York City, working as an engraver. In 1828, he and Freeman Rawdon established an engraving firm that soon grew into Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson, a leading producer of bank notes, bonds, and other finely engraved printing.

On March 3, 1847, a federal act authorized the postmaster general to use postage stamps for the prepayment of postage on letters. Within two weeks Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson had submitted a proposal to design and print those new postage stamps, and they quickly got the contract. 

The result was the 5¢ Benjamin Franklin and 10¢ George Washington issues that went on sale in New York on July 1, 1847. Franklin was the first postmaster general, appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775, and Washington, the first president.


  

Some three million of the five cent stamps were printed and 863,000 ten centers. Back then postal rates were determined both by the weight and the distance that the letters had to travel. Letters going 300 miles or less were 5¢ per half ounce;  over 300 miles were 10¢ per half ounce.  

Wright’s company continued to merge with others, but held majority control when it became the American Bank Note Company in 1858, with Wright as its first treasurer. The company created not only the first stamps, but the first paper money, called “greenbacks,” issued by the federal government in 1862.

 A close inspection of the first greenbacks shows why American Bank Note was considered an expert in producing currency that was difficult to counterfeit. In fact, Neziah Wright had been a co-author of a book,  New Security for Protecting Bank Notes from Alterations & Photographic Counterfeits, published in 1858.


By the 1860s, Wright was considered a leading businessman in New York City. In his 1875 History of Bradford, Vt.,  the Rev. Silas McKeen quaintly describes  Neziah Wright as “a man well-known and highly esteemed in financial and commercial circles, who is said to possess a sufficiency of wealth, acquired by fair and honorable means. The amiable and excellent wife of Mr. N. Wright, deceased some years since, leaving no child but a virtually adopted daughter, Jane [sic], a worthy young lady, who married Mr. Phineas Lowndesbury, of Ridgefield, Ct., a gentleman worthy of such a wife.” (McKeen had some problems with names; the adopted daughter was Jennie, not Jane, and Phineas was Lounsbury, not Lowndesbury.)

      Therein lies the Ridgefield connection. Phineas Lounsbury was born in 1841 on the family’s Ridgefield  farm, The Hickories, in Farmingville.  After the Civil War he was running a shoe factory in New Haven, later in Norwalk, reports Lounsbury historian  Jeremy Main. “Phineas built ties with the New York banking society and sealed them by marrying Jennie Wright, daughter of Neziah Wright, a founder and treasurer of the American Bank Note Co.,” said Main. That wedding occurred in 1867.

Jennie and Phineas lived on Main Street, eventually building Grovelawn, the mansion now used as Ridgefield’s Community Center. When Neziah died in 1879, his will named Phineas Lounsbury as his executor.


Neziah Wright must have liked Phineas Lounsbury and Ridgefield a great deal because both he and his wife — and his sister — are all buried in the Lounsbury section of the Ridgefield Cemetery. His adopted daughter is nearby, with her husband, Phineas. The huge main monument — one of the tallest in Ridgefield — is shared by both the Wrights and Lounsburys.



The company Neziah Wright helped to create in the 1820s is still alive today, called ABCorp, with American Bank Note as a subsidiary. While it still does fine, secure printing, the company has branched out into such fields as “dual-interface (contactless) payment debit and credit cards” and business-to-business distribution services in more than 100 countries. Its headquarters are just down the road, in Stamford, Conn.


Konrad Bercovici: 
Gypsies and Gusto

Konrad Bercovici, a self-styled “gypsy,” was a popular American writer and journalist whose friends included Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His successful lawsuit against Charlie Chaplin generated many a headline three quarters of a century ago.

Although his home was literally on the state line along West Lane in Lewisboro, N.Y., Bercovici always considered himself a Ridgefielder. In fact, his mailing address was Ridgefield because the Ridgefield Post Office delivered his mail.

A native of Romania, Konrad Bercovici was born in 1882 to an intellectual Jewish couple who taught their children Greek, French, and German as well as Romanian. At a young age he became fascinated with the Roma — what he always called gypsies. “He spent much of his youth among the tents of gypsies who poured into Romania from the borders of Hungary, listening to their songs and learning their language,” said the New York Times.

When he was 11, his father was killed in an anti-Jewish riot and the family soon moved  to Paris where they began socializing with the literary community. He studied the organ under Charles-Marie Widor — the man who taught Albert Schweitzer — and was soon proficient enough that he gave a recital at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. 

While still a teenager, he began to write professionally, often about the Roma. He sold short stories for $5 each, while also working at a variety of jobs, including painting the frame of the Eiffel Tower.

He met his wife, Naomi, a sculptor, in Paris. The couple moved to New York City in 1904. There, to earn a living while pursuing his interest in writing, Konrad shoveled snow from the city streets, played piano in silent picture theaters, sold artificial flowers, and worked in sweatshops.

His first book, Crimes of Charities, appeared in 1917 and criticized what he considered the indifference of organized charities to the people they were supposed to be helping. 

The same year, he joined the staff of the New York World, writing sports stories and features, and three years later moved to the New York Evening Post, covering stories in many parts of the world. At the same time he continued turning out short stories for literary magazines.

During the 1920s he also wrote a dozen books of fiction and non-fiction, soon gaining an international reputation as a lively and interesting author. He became one of the Algonquin Table “regulars” that included  Irving Berlin, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, and Alexander Woollcott. Among his circle of friends were such artists, writers, actors, and musicians  as Melvyn Douglas, Diego Rivera,  F. Scott Fitzgerald,  Paul Robeson, Ernest Hemingway, Wilhelm Van Loon, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Gershwin brothers. A  portrait of him sketched by the young Amadeo Modigliani is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Over his long life, he produced around 40 books, many of them about the Roma — his Story of the Gypsies has been considered a standard work on the subject. However, he also wrote fiction and non-fiction on historical figures, including That Royal Lover, about Romania’s King Caroll, and Savage Prodigal, a biography of the French poet Rimbaud.

The Bercovicis moved to West Lane around 1930, but also maintained a residence in New York City. Among his local friends was author Margaret “Peggy” Shane of North Salem Road, mother of Betty Grace Nash, longtime managing editor of The Ridgefield Press and wife of publisher  Karl Nash.

Karl Nash was well acquainted with Bercovici whom he described as “a frequent speaker at service club meetings over the years, tackling his subjects with a gusto that marked his writings.” In one talk that Nash covered in June 1945, Bercovici told the Ridgefield Lions that he favored imprisoning the entire nation of Germany for the war and its atrocities.  “There is no reasonable argument why a whole nation that has proven itself asocial should not be treated by the civilized nations of the world as an asocial individual is treated by society,” Bercovici told the club. “The crime committed by a thousand or a million or ten million is not less a crime because it has been committed by a mass.”

Some of Bercovici’s books became movies, including The Volga Boatman (1926), produced by Cecil B. DeMille. He himself worked as a screenwriter  for several years in Hollywood where he became friends with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin. It was Chaplin’s hit The Great Dictator (1940) that was the subject of a 1947 lawsuit in which Bercovici  sued Chaplin, charging that he plagiarized material that Bercovici had written.


 

Bercovici was represented  by attorney Louis Nizer. In his book My Life in Court, Nizer explained that “The claim was that Chaplin had approached Bercovici to produce one of his gypsy stories as a motion picture and in the course of those friendly negotiations, Bercovici gave him an outline of ‘The Great Dictator’ story about a barber who looks like Hitler and is confused with him.” The case was settled, with Chaplin paying Bercovici $95,000 ($1.1 million in 2020). but with Chaplin also gaining rights to a couple Bercovici books that he could turn into movies.

In his autobiography, Chaplin insisted that he had been the sole writer of The Great Dictator’s script. He came to a settlement, though, because of his “unpopularity in the States at that moment and being under such court pressure, [he] was terrified, not knowing what to expect next.” 

Bercovici died in 1961 at the age of 80, leaving four children including journalist Rion Bercovici, artist Mirel Bercovici, and author Revolte “Rada” Bercovici.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Eddy Brown: 
Child Prodigy Turned Radio Pioneer

If you were a fan of classical music in the first half of the 20th Century, you knew the name Eddy Brown. A child-prodigy violinist, Brown performed with orchestras across Europe and the United States early in the century and then turned to radio, where he became a pioneer in bringing classical music to the airwaves. He was the first director of WQXR, the New York City station that is still broadcasting classical music today and, thanks to the internet, has listeners worldwide.

A native of Chicago, Eddy Brown was born in 1895, son of an amateur violinist who had immigrated from Austria and a Russian mother who was a follower of Christian Science —  she named her son after Mary Baker Eddy, the religion’s founder.  The family moved to Indianapolis when Eddy was 4. Fascinated by his father’s violin playing, little Eddy began imitating dad and, showing considerable talent, was put into the hands of teachers at Butler University’s music conservatory in Indianapolis.  At the age of six, he gave his first public recital.

Continuing to show great promise, Brown was sent to Budapest at the age of nine to study at the Royal Conservatory of Music under such teachers as Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. In 1905, at age 10, he made his European concert debut in Berlin and a year later, he won the Budapest Concerto Competition — the second-place finisher was a fellow student, Jeno Blau, who later changed his name to Eugene Ormandy.


After graduating in 1909, he began performing with orchestras throughout Europe, including a concert that year in Royal Albert Hall with the London Philharmonic. The following year, while continuing concert tours, he began studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, with violinist Leopold Auer. A fellow classmate was a young Jascha Heifetz.

Brown returned to the U.S. in 1916, making his debut in his hometown of Indianapolis with the New York Symphony, and a few days later, performed the same concert at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Late that December, he gave a recital in Carnegie Hall. A New York Times reviewer observed: “Mr. Brown is one of America’s young artists who have come before the public at a time when war has sent all the greatest to these shores, and native talent must meet a competition never matched oversea.  He has maintained his place before the public by force of ability and character and a large audience greeted him yesterday.”

Over the next dozen years, he continued to perform in recitals and with orchestras around the country and abroad. 

Brown was signed by Columbia Records, for whom he produced more than 60 recordings between 1918 and 1927. In a 1923 interview, he said that it was harder to record the sound of a violin than the voice of a singer. “The great problem is to retain the peculiar timbre and quality of the violin expression to get the feel of the bowing, and the fingering, and to hold the distinctiveness which marks the violin from all other existing musical instruments,” he said. But, he added, “I am confident that it will be only a little while when the magicians of the phonograph laboratories will have captured the secret of violin tone.”


In 1930, perhaps weary of the concert life, he turned to radio, becoming one of the first people to bring serious classical music programming to the airwaves. His first post was as music director with the Mutual network’s WOR in New York, where he produced — and sometimes appeared in — many musical programs. His wife, Beth Lydy, a former Broadway musical actress, wrote  scripts for the programs. 

In 1936, he was named director of the brand new WQXR,  the first classical-only station in the United States. He became a part-owner and remained at the station until 1942. (Two years later it was sold to the New York Times; today it is owned, along with WNYC, by New York Public Radio.) He also became a station personality, hosting shows over the years. And, according to a station history, he was not narrow in his programming tastes, inviting guests like conductor Wilfred Pelletier of the Metropolitan Opera to hear Benny Goodman. “Brown’s mixing of jazz and classical artists produced a vibe of mutual appreciation that spilled over to WQXR programming,” the history said. “At a time when 80% of airtime was devoted to classical music, the station began broadcasting blues, jazz and swing.”


In 1944, Eddy and Beth Brown bought the former Carnall family homestead on Peaceable Street, described by The Ridgefield Press at the time as “a Colonial residence with attractively landscaped grounds, a tennis court, gardens and a two-car garage.” They maintained the place for several years but by 1949 the couple had moved to Italy to work for the  U.S. Department of State in a program to establish cultural ties between European nations and the United States. While there he and the Italian government established the Accademia Internazionale di Belcanto, a school and theater for young singers. He also created a program that allowed young American singers to perform in Europe and study at the Accademia. 

In 1956, the Browns returned to the States to become coordinators and teachers at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. He later returned to Indianapolis to become the artist-in-residence at Butler University — where he had begun violin lessons 70 years earlier.

While on a 1974 trip to Europe where he was to lecture, he died of a heart attack in Italy. He was 78 years old. Beth Lydy Brown died five years later at 83.

In his younger concert-playing years, Brown did not make a lot of money. To help support himself, he collaborated with Louis Gruenberg, his pianist in many performances, to create the musical, “Roly-Boly Eyes,” which played 108 performances on Broadway in 1919 and then went on the road.  

Brown called it the most profitable thing he ever did.

 Marian Cox: 
‘Lady of the Orchids’

 “New York’s Famous ‘Lady of the Orchids’ Bares the Hidden Story of Her Fabulous Society Life.”

The headline stretched across the top of two pages of the San Francisco Examiner’s Sunday magazine in 1934 for two weeks in a row. In the two-part article, Marian Cox explained why she “seeks to bury her ‘Parasite Past’” by selling almost all of her possessions, including Stonecrest, her estate-farm along North Street in Ridgefield.


Cox, an author and feminist who was considered both talented and beautiful, may also have been one of the wealthiest women to live in Ridgefield. Married to a multimillionaire, she rubbed shoulders with the literati and the “400” in the city and entertained the likes of presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan both at both her Manhattan and Stonecrest mansions.

A daughter of a well-to-do Southern family from St. Louis, Mabel Marian Metcalfe gave her birth year as 1882, although there is some evidence she was born in 1878. In 1899, when she said she was only 16 years old, she married  Dr. John Watson Cox, a wealthy New York City chemical manufacturer who was 43.

“There was I,” she told the Examiner, “a child of 16 thrown into the mad whirl of New York society, straight from a sheltered, quiet home in the old South. Immediately I must play hostess to distinguished guests and be mistress of a 20-room mansion and 14 servants.”

She succeeded, it seems, and her mansion — which stretched from East 38th to 39th Streets in the fashionable Murray Hill section of Manhattan — became a destination. “The foremost statesmen, leaders from the field of literature and most of the social greats, frequented the Cox mansion, which was as impressive and grandiose as any in the New York of its day,” said the Examiner, which shared the story with many Hearst newspapers across the country.

In between a life of hosting parties and managing a household of 14 servants, Marian Cox started to write. She turned out several books, the first of which was The Crowds and The Veiled Woman, published in 1910 by Funk and Wagnalls. Her stories were considered feminist, featuring strong women. The San Francisco Chronicle said the book “sounded the most distinctive and ambitious note in recent American fiction.”


When her book, The Dry Rot of Society, was published in 1919, a male reviewer in The New York Sun called Cox “one of the few great feminine writers of English. She has a lucid style [and] she has that rare gift among women — irony. She has vision. She mocks, she scorns, she pities. She thinks without sinking into mere philosophizing...She has beautiful wisdom.”  

However, Cox confessed in the 1934 article that, at Murray Hill and Stonecrest, she grew addicted to her possessions, which, she explained, gave her a sense of identity. As she became an increasingly popular hostess, they served as anchors in a sea of social events. 

“I delighted in showing off my wonderful home and champagne goblets with the longest stems in New York (so I was told), jeweled Bohemian glasses, Royal Crown Leighton and Copeland china — all sorts of superlative things to make a grace of the mere animal functions of eating and drinking,” she wrote.

At least one guest did not seem to impress her. A devoted Democrat, Dr. Cox was treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and two-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan would often stop by their home on his visits to New York. Bryan was the famous orator, who would later add to his notoriety by opposing Darwinism in the Scopes trial.

“From my long-stemmed champagne goblets, he always drank grape juice while the rest of us drank wine, and he preached prohibition while manifesting such a Gargantuan appetite for food that he was the first person who impressed me with the truth of the adage:

We compound for sins we are inclined to,

“By condemning those we have no mind to.”

“Bryan never drank himself into life,” she added, “but he ate himself unto death, in my inconsequential opinion.”

Dr. Cox died in 1928 and six years later, Marian Cox decided she had had enough of being saddled with millions of dollars in possessions and the responsibilities — and guilt — that came with them. She auctioned off virtually all of her furnishings and art, as well as Stonecrest.

“We possessed this city home of 20 rooms and a country home of 30 rooms and now I am wondering if I have ever had a home at all,” she said in 1934. At Murray Hill, “my salon was like frozen music, Louis 15th in style, with all its furniture reproductions of historic pieces at the palace of Versailles, Fontainebleau and Museum of the Louvre. My bedroom was a copy, even to the silk upon the walls, of the bedroom of Marie Antoinette.”


Of Stonecrest, which the Coxes bought around 1908, she said she emulated Marie Antoinette and attempted to convert the farm into a prosperous dairy. However, she admitted, she was unable to transform herself into a successful business woman.

After she left both homes  and their furnishings, Cox lived in various places until late 1940, when she returned to Ridgefield, acquiring the former home of artist George Stengel on lower Main Street.  “It seems I am only following the instinctive lure of the past in returning to Ridgefield to find the home for which I have been vainly seeking ever since I left there,” she wrote in a long essay in The Ridgefield Press about returning to town.

However, her stay was not long. During the war she met James Fay Logan, the captain of a Liberty Ship that was transporting war supplies in the North and South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.  Captain Logan was at least 17 years younger than she. They were married in 1943 and later moved to New York City.


 Although she spent much of her life in the limelight and seemed to thrive on publicity, Marian Cox Logan faded from the scene late in life. She apparently died in the early 1970s — her exact date and place of death has not been discovered. Captain Logan died in 1981.

In 1967, still using the name Marian Cox, she self-published her memoirs, The Sphinx Wore An Orchid. The title was a reference to her reputation decades earlier as an orchid lover. In fact, she confessed at the time she was selling her Ridgefield home, “At my country estate, ‘Stonecrest,’ in Connecticut, there was a conservatory and a gardener for the sole purpose of raising rare orchids for me. Twice a week I received a huge box of flowers for the house and orchids for myself. I was then, truly, a Lady of the Orchids.”


She found symbolism in her love of “such strange orchids raised solely for me. As strange as those I had seen in the botanical gardens of Buitenzorg, Java. Orchids like little tarantulas pinned to my heart. Spotted orchids like blooms corrupted by the sun. Pure orchids so white they seemed innocent of every touch of the sun. My young life in its flowery grave of solitude and splendor!”

But, she added, “this is what made me write — in a superb sublimation of sex and humanity. Four books of mine were published during this gala period, books strange as Java orchids for an American girl to write.”



The Revs. Leete:  In the Pulpit, 
Before the Class, On the Links

Two leaders in the Congregational Church — father and son — are buried together in the Ridgefield Cemetery.  Descendants of an unusual pioneer and tied to three Connecticut governors, both were accomplished ministers in different realms, and one was even a champion golfer.

William White Leete was born in Windsor, Conn., in 1854, a fifth grandson of William Leete, one of the earliest settlers in Connecticut and the only one to govern both of its colonies. Born around 1613 in Huntingdonshire, England, the progenitor William Leete became a lawyer, serving the bishop of Cambridge at a court that was investigating and prosecuting Puritans. Leete wound up agreeing with the people he was supposed to prosecute, became a Puritan himself,  emigrated to the New World in 1639, and was one of the founders of the town of Guilford, Conn. He later served as governor of the New Haven Colony and after that colony merged with the Connecticut Colony in 1664, he was elected governor of Connecticut from 1676 until his death in 1683.

Great-great-great-great-great grandson William W. Leete graduated from Amherst and like many of his ancestors, went to Yale where he earned a degree in divinity in 1880. He then continued his studies at Yale’s graduate school. In 1882, he accepted a call to the First Congregational Church in Ridgefield, his first pastorate.

Here he immediately faced a major challenge. The old “meeting house” on the green, built 80 years earlier, was falling apart and the congregation needed a new and larger church. Under his leadership, the congregation came up with a plan to build a new edifice west of the existing one — near where Jesse Lee Memorial United Methodist Church is today. Neighbors objected, however, and the plan was abandoned. 

Henry King McHarg, a wealthy parishioner and descendant of an early Ridgefield minister of the church, came to the rescue, donating land at Main Street and West Lane for the new building, which was erected in 1888 under Leete’s tenure. But on his second Sunday in the brand new church, Mr. Leete gave his farewell sermon — he had taken a pastorate in Rockford, Ill., (the third Ridgefield minister to go there). 

After a decade of pastoral work and perhaps influenced by his experiences in Ridgefield, he spent 25 years as the New England secretary for the Congregational Church Building Society, and then another 10 years as editorial and field secretary of the Congregational Church Extension Board. In both capacities, he helped local congregations build new churches.

While in Ridgefield, Rev. Leete had a rather unusual interest for a 19th Century clergyman: He played baseball. “He was considered a good baseballist,” The Ridgefield Press reported at the time. And the newspaper should have known — Leete played for the Press’s own team in the 1880s. 

Later in life, he became a champion golfer; for five consecutive years he won the Class A trophy for players 75 or older at the United States Golf Association tournament in Rye, N.Y. The New York Times reported that “he also excelled as a skater.”

During his pastorate here, Leete met and fell in love with Ann Eliza Rockwell — two of whose uncles, George and Phineas Lounsbury, became, like William’s ancestor, Connecticut governors. The marriage explains why, after he died in 1946 at the age of 91, he was buried in the Lounsbury section of the Ridgefield Cemetery. It also explains the name of their son,  the Rev. William Rockwell Leete, born in Ridgefield in 1886, who is buried alongside his parents at the Lounsbury Cemetery.

The younger Leete had a rather exotic career, including two years’ imprisonment. After graduating from Yale in 1908, he earned a degree in divinity from Union Theological Seminary and by 1912, was in China, working as a missionary. He spent much of his life there, including many years as a professor at the Nanking Theological Seminary in Shanghai. He also earned a doctorate in divinity during a sabbatical in the U.S.

In 1941, he was arrested by conquering Japanese soldiers, and held in a Shanghai prison camp until 1943 when his release was finally secured. He immediately headed home, only to learn that, while he had been imprisoned, his son, Lt. Jonathan Leete of the Army Air Force, had gone missing in action in the Middle East. Lt. Leete was never found.

After the war, Dr. Leete returned to teaching in China. He was forced back to the States when the communists began taking over the country. He died in Michigan in 1952.

Being fifth and sixth great-grandchildren of Gov. William Leete put the two ministers in some unusual company. Another fifth great-grandchild was John Brown, the abolitionist whose body lay “moldering in the grave” after being executed for his raid on Harpers Ferry.

Financier J.P. Morgan, one of the richest men in the world in his time, was a sixth great grandson. Even stars of stage and screen have been in the clan. Film actor Humphrey Bogart was a seventh great-grandson. A ninth great-grandson is TV comic/actor Ed Helms from The Daily Show and The Office, who was also the voice for animated films of the Lorax and, err, Captain Underpants (what would the Revs. Leete think of that?).

Marthe Krueger: 
Dancing with Nature

The small town of Ridgefield in the 1940s was home to many writers, artists, actors, composers, and dancers  who found here not only fellowship, but the peace and beauty of the countryside. Concert dancer, choreographer and photographer Marthe Krueger of New York City felt that the “fluidity and lyrical qualities of dance” were close to many of the qualities found in nature. In 1942, to be closer to the natural world, she set up a home and studio in The Coach House on Branchville Road, a building that would later house another dancer, an actor and a world-class art collection.

Born in Mulhouse, Alsace-Lorraine, France, in 1910,  Krueger began ballet training at the age of eight  in Strasbourg,   and went on to study in Paris and London with several dance luminaries.

She appeared on stages  throughout Europe, and upon coming to America at the age of 23 in 1933, made her debut at New York City’s Town Hall.  During the Depression, Krueger not only performed, but taught at several of New York’s finest dance schools, where she became close friends with the legendary ballerina Muriel Stuart. 

She also began working with two notable composers. Classical composer Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972) wrote “Suite for Marthe Krueger,” a work for two pianos, in 1940 while  Alex North (1910-1991), a rising young composer who would become one of Hollywood’s top creators of movie scores, wrote several dance pieces for her in 1941 and 1942, including “Prelude,” “Will-O’-Wisp,” and “Trineke.”  

She and North became such good friends that she invited him to teach at the school she had just established at her Ridgefield home. (A few years later, North bought himself a house in Ridgefield, using it as a weekend retreat for many years.) 

“Ridgefield was selected for the establishment of a school to perpetuate her art because Marthe Krueger feels that in the hills of Connecticut, spiritual as well as bodily strength  may be developed through the appreciation, practice and understanding of beauty of movement,” said The Ridgefield Press in reporting her arrival in 1942.


 

The year after she moved to town, Krueger staged Alex North’s new musical for children, “The Hither and Thither of Danny Dither.” On Aug. 28, 1942 North himself played the piano as the children of the new Marthe Krueger dance school performed the musical  in a PTA benefit at the East Ridge School auditorium — now the Ridgefield Playhouse. (North went on to compose the music for many of the 20th Century’s top movies, including “Death of A Salesman,”   “The Sound and the Fury,”  “Spartacus,”  “Cleopatra,” “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,  “2001: A Space Odyssey,”  “Dragonslayer,”  and “Good Morning, Vietnam.” He also wrote the pop hit, Unchained Melody, and was a mentor of the young and promising film composer, John Williams.)

During World War II, Krueger   toured with a U.S.O. unit, entertaining troops. She also worked as a professional photographer, opening her own studio in New York. Her photographic work ranged from artistic shots of dance productions to engagement announcement portraits for young ladies  — a number of them appeared in The New York Times in the 1940s.


Later she served as ballet mistress at the Silvermine Guild. She had been married in 1938 to importer Adolph Mayer, a widower twice her age, who died three years later.

In the late 1940s, she moved to Wilton where, in 1960, she opened the  Marthe Krueger School of Dance in a studio that was aimed at taking advantage of its natural setting. Former student Christine Leventhal said Krueger “surrounded her lovely glass-walled studio with the best of nature: a tree-encircled pond complete with swans Sigy and Odette (whose elegant necks and movement inspired those within); all sizes, colors and kinds of birds; mallards, wood ducks and geese; deer; muskrats; raccoons; and most thrilling of all — the great blue heron. Marthe loved her animals and birds. She was a gifted gardener as well, and bright swatches and drifts of color surrounded her property.”

“She was a pioneer of dance in Fairfield County,” Leventhal added, calling her “devoted to her students surely, but even more, devoted to the art of dance and a never-ending pursuit of excellence in her art.”

Marthe Krueger taught her last class on the day before she fell ill in 2002 and was sent to the hospital, where she died at the age of 92.  

 After Krueger left the Coach House around 1948, she leased the place to Paul Draper,  an international tap dancing star. Draper was accused of being a communist and was under attack by followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Disturbed at his treatment, he left the U.S. in 1951, moving to Switzerland, but eventually returned to teach and perform.

Chinese art collector Abel Bahr lived there from 1951 until his death in 1959; many works from his collection are now in major museums. A later occupant was Broadway actor and singer Don McKay, who was known for his parties featuring celebrities in the arts.

Mary Hewitt Stebbins: 
A Poet Poe Liked

They say that fame is  fleeting. That was especially true in the era before the media became mass, and it seemed to be the case with Mary E. Hewitt, once called “one of the most charming of the ‘Poetesses of America.’” 

The poet and editor, who produced a half dozen books in the mid-19th Century and who counted Edgar Allen Poe among her friends, died virtually forgotten in a Ridgefield farmhouse. Forgotten, that is, except by a novelist editor of The Ridgefield Press.

“In character she is sincere, fervent, benevolent, with a heart full of the truest charity — sensitive to praise and to blame,” Poe described her in 1846. “In temperament, melancholy (although this is not precisely the term); in manner, subdued, gentle, yet with grace and dignity; converses impressively, earnestly, yet quietly and in a low tone. In person she is tall and slender, with black hair and large gray eyes; complexion also dark; the general expression of the countenance singularly interesting and agreeable.”

Mary Elizabeth Morse was born in 1807 in Malden, Mass. Her farming father, Joseph, died when she was a child and her mother, Betsey Moore, moved the family to Boston where Mary grew up. Little is known about her youth, but she must have received an excellent education and been exposed to people in the arts. In 1827, she married James Lang Hewitt, who was to become a prominent music publisher, and by 1829 they were living in New York City.


By the early 1840s, Mary Hewitt was writing poetry that was appearing in such magazines as The Knickerbocker, sometimes under the pseudonyms of “Ione” or “Jane.” Her first book, The Songs of Our Land, and Other Poems,  was published in 1845 by W.D. Ticknor, a major publisher of the era. The book consists mostly of her poems that had appeared in magazines. 

In a lengthy review of The Songs of Our Land appearing in Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine,  Edgar Allan Poe said her “compositions evince poetic fervor, classicism, and keen appreciation of both moral and physical beauty. No one of them, perhaps, can be judiciously commended as a whole; but no one of them is without merit.” He concluded that the writer has talent that needs to develop. “Mrs. Hewitt has, upon the whole, given indication rather than immediate evidence of poetic power. If not discouraged, she will undoubtedly achieve, hereafter, a very desirable triumph.”

Nine years later, her second collection, Poems, Sacred, Passionate, and Legendary appeared, but Poe was unable to review this book — he had died in 1849 at the age of 40. Her poems also appeared in several anthologies published in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Hewitt was the editor of four books, often contributing prose pieces to each: The Gem of the Western World (1850), The Memorial: Written by Friends of the Late Mrs. Osgood (1851), Heroines of History (1852), and Lives of Illustrious Women of All Ages (1860). “Mrs. Osgood” was Frances Sargent Osgood (1811-1850), a close friend of both Poe and Hewitt.

James Hewitt died in 1853. Two years later, Mary Hewitt married widower Russell W. Stebbins Sr., a wealthy New York cotton merchant and native of Ridgefield, who was 14 years her senior. Mary continued to write and edit under the name of  Mary E. Hewitt.


 

Russell and Mary lived in New York City but Russell also had a farm on North Salem Road, inherited from Stebbins ancestors, that the couple used as a summer home. Russell Stebbins’s close relations with The South in connection with his cotton dealings may have prompted him to retire to the Ridgefield farm in 1861, the year the Civil War broke out.   According to Barbara Wardenburg, who once owned the farmhouse at 180 North Salem Road, the place dates back to the 1700s. A past owner may have been a Stebbins who was a Loyalist and fled during the Revolution, only to later return and reclaim the property.

Once Russell retired to Ridgefield, Mary seems to have retired from writing. No more books by her were published and no poems seemed to appear in magazines.


By 1870, the household included Mary, then 64 years old; Russell, 78;  Delia Moore Osgood, 66, Mary’s widowed sister; Carlotta Moore, 25,  probably a niece; Delia Stebbins, 67, sister of Russell; and Abigail Stebbins, 57,  daughter of Russell by his first wife.  With five “senior citizens” in the household, it’s not surprising they also had two young Irish maids plus a 19-year-old “laborer” to help out.

Russell died in 1878 and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn — the same cemetery where Mary’s first husband, James Hewitt, is interred. Mary, who died in 1894, is buried with neither spouse, but in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Mass., next to her sister Delia Moore Osgood. Nearby is the grave of Mary’s good friend, Frances Sargent Osgood, whose husband, artist Samuel Stillman Osgood, had painted a portrait of her now owned by the New-York Historical Society. (Osgood also painted Edgar Allen Poe. He was not closely related to Delia.)


By the time she died in her 87th year, Mary Moore Hewitt Stebbins had been all but forgotten in literary circles.  While her husband’s death 16 years earlier had gotten substantial mention in the New York press, including a 190-word obituary in The New York Times, Mary received only a 21-word notice in the New York Tribune, which mentioned nothing of her career as an editor and poet and cited only her function as a wife of Russell Stebbins. (Russell’s Times obituary said only that he was survived by an unnamed wife; his Tribune obituary did not even mention he had a wife.)

The Ridgefield Press  had barely covered Russell’s passing, giving him 40 words, but  the newspaper was effusive at Mary’s death, turning out more than 250 words about her. 

“There died in the northern part of Ridgefield Tuesday a very intellectual woman, one whose personality was stamped with the higher thought and whose character withal was sympathetic, full of love and tenderness,”  the account began.

“Mrs. Russell Stebbins died at her home in North Ridgefield at 4 o’clock Tuesday morning. She had been confined to her home but a week, but during the past two years since the death of her sister, a most lovable companion, Mrs. Delia M. Osgood, she had gradually declined.” 

After briefly describing the funeral at St. Stephen’s, The Press noted that Mrs. Stebbins would be buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery “where her friend, the venerable poet-physician, Oliver Wendell Holmes, has also been laid this week.”

The obituary goes on to tell something of her life, noting that “Mrs. Stebbins had numerous warm friends high in art and literature, and her own writings in prose and verse were by no means of an inferior order. Her contributions to the better periodicals were choice gems at the time when Emerson, Whittier, Holmes, Hawthorne, and Lowell were making American literature of a superior standard. 

“Her life was thrown into a rare literary channel indeed. The atmosphere she breathed during her active life was one long day of higher pleasure. Her Songs of Our Land breathe a sentiment of earnestness, a desire to reach a higher plane of living. Innately refined, she craved those associations which could not fail to mellow her life into a very ideal of early existence...

“She is not dead. She lives in a realm unfettered by finite uncertainties. Let her past be an inspiration to those who read her beautiful words left on printed pages.”

The obituary was undoubtedly written by Press editor Edgar Bross who himself turned out two novels around this time, and who probably knew many of the local literati. 

• • • 

Thirty years after Mary Hewitt Stebbins died, a “holocaust of letters that had accumulated in the attic” of an old house took place on Governor Street. 

“As one heaped basket after another was carried down and its contents emptied upon the bonfire in the backyard, a bystander casually picked up a letter, and opening it looked at the signature, Sarah H. Whitman, then glancing over the pages saw references to Mr. Poe,” reported Edith Dickson of the Edgar Allan Poe Society in 1925.  Sarah Whitman was once slated to marry Poe, and the breakup of their engagement sparked lurid newspaper accounts of what had happened. In the rescued letter, Whitman debunks the sensational stories the media told, and relates what actually happened. Dated Oct. 4, 1850,  the letter was addressed to Whitman’s good friend, Mary E. Hewitt. 

So were several other letters rescued from the fire that are now in the archives of the Poe society in Baltimore. Who knows how many  priceless historical letters to Mary Hewitt were destroyed that day, but to offer a hint of their monetary value: An 1845 letter from Poe to Mary Hewitt — in which Poe admits he was an autograph collector — sold at an auction in 1972 for $3,300. That’s about $20,000 today.

Be careful what you burn.